On Friday afternoon in Eastern Saudi Arabia, two car bombs were detonated in an attempt to cripple the world’s largest oil processing center, the ARAMCO complex in Abqaiq (also known as Buqayq). The attempt largely failed in its primary mission, but also largely succeeded in its secondary mission, which is more and more becoming recognized as a form of information warfare via the world’s media outlets.
Two results emerge from this measure of success. The first result, clearly visible and readily measurable, was the instant jump in oil prices worldwide and the psychological effect it had on the world’s economic systems, regardless of the absence of any actual immediate commodity disruption. The second result, more obscured and not immediately measurable, is the psychological surge the attack surely provides to terrorists (primarily those in Saudi Arabia but also globally), regardless of the level of primary mission success. These results should be seen for what they are: Victories from a ‘failed’ attack with very tangible immediate and long-term effects.
Since the attack, al-Qaida has claimed responsibility, including their version of events, and promised that there were more to come. They should be taken at their word, as the Saudi security arms most certainly are. As of this writing, there are reports that Saudi security forces have had at least one additional clash just outside of Riyadh.
Two of the killed terrorists were on Saudi Arabia’s version of the ‘Most Wanted’ list. Security Watchtower keeps tabs of the Kingdom’s Most Wanted and has an excellent graphic displaying the entire list. Currently, 47 of the top 50 on the Saudi Arabian list have either been killed or captured. Also interesting is the two killed terrorists’ apparent blood relationship to key Saudi figures, including ‘King Abdullah’s closest advisor for over 50 years’ and the head of Saudi Arabia’s religious police, a Wahhabi cleric.
The al-Qaeda statement that named the two suicide bombers claimed that the ‘assault squad’ that led the way for the suicide bombers to enter ARAMCO’s first set of gates managed to escape from the scene. Saudi officials said four terrorists died. Curiously, Saudi officials confirmed the somewhat embarrassing identities of the two terrorists named in the al-Qaeda statement, but seems to have not released the names of the other two bodies they reported as also killed in the attack.
Insofar as the failure to actually destroy or even disrupt any portion of the Abqaiq facility’s capacity, the failure of this attempt at a spectacular attack is symptomatic of extremely decentralized nature, where disparate groups often work autonomously without the ability or desire to branch out for maximum utilization of resources, both human and material. But this weakness is also their strength. John Robb hits the nail on the head.
Remember, al Qaeda is open source now. It is operating at a level of decentralization that will allow it to take the war to many locations simultaneously without central management. Bin Laden’s threats reflect his inside knowledge of what is now a self-directed movement and not planning he has directed personally. Despite all of this current activity in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, we should also expect to see systems disrupted against US mainland targets in the not too distant future. The organization has more than enough capacity to accomplish this.
While large-scale spectacular attacks are less frequent and meet less success, the number of attacks will almost certainly be on the rise, especially in Saudi Arabia, but elsewhere as well. Dependent on the degree of communication that exists among regional cells, the swarming tactic remains the most viable means for asymmetric operations, rather than the spectacular event.